In online memorial to his town's war dead, South Jersey man puts life into the names

Jeff Vilardo, at his home in Cherry Hill, thumbs through portraits of servicemen from Mount Ephraim who gave their lives in wartime. Vilardo, a volunteer firefighter in Mount Ephraim, has been researching the lives of these fallen heroes and memorializing them online.

After hearing the names on the Mount Ephraim veterans monument solemnly announced every year during Memorial Day ceremonies, Jeff Vilardo began to wonder: Who were these hometown heroes?

“I  didn’t know a thing about any of these guys,” recalls the firefighter and regular flag bearer at the ceremonies, who has since come to know a lot about them.

And thanks to Vilardo’s well-researched, regularly updated website (mewarmemorial.blogspot.com), Mount Ephraim and the rest of the world also have a chance to learn more about these fallen warriors.

“I didn’t know my father, and from what Jeff has told me, I had a pretty wonderful dad,” says Dorothy Sayers, 73, of West Deptford. She was 18 months old when Pvt. Attilio Simone was killed in an ambush outside Dortmund, Germany, on April 6, 1945.

Simone, 27, was one of the three Mount Ephraim servicemen who died on successive days in Europe and the Philippines in April 1945. In all, 14 sons of the tidy, working-class borough along the Black Horse Pike east of Camden were killed in action during World War II; one more, Air Force Cpl. Samuel H. Rainey,  lost his life during the Korean War.

A few were married and had children; others were barely into their 20s when they died.

“I’m trying to get to know the forgotten,”  says Vilardo, 44, who started researching the stories of the men behind the names in 2015. “I’m on a mission.”

A lanky, earnest fellow with a friendly grin, Vilardo is a groundskeeper at Audubon High School and lives with his girlfriend, Deanna Monroe, in Cherry Hill.  He continues to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Mount Ephraim, where he grew up.

“I’m Mount Ephraim through and through,” Vilardo says -- which explains why he can name the streets where the veterans once lived. “I spend most of my free time on this,” he says.

Vilardo is grateful to DVRBS.com, the Camden/South Jersey-centric website Phil Cohen established more than a decade ago and still maintains from his home in North Dakota.

It was Cohen who discovered that one of the names on Mount Ephraim’s memorial belongs to a borough resident whose son, Charles Busey, did not live in the borough but did lose his life while serving with the Coast Guard in 1944.

DVRBS.com includes pages of detailed content about veterans from many South Jersey communities, and was “the perfect place to start,” notes Vilardo.

He also gathers information from newspaper archives and personal, organizational, and institutional websites, as well as commercial sites such as Ancestry.com. Facebook has been a fruitful source of connections with family members and other sources of information.

“It’s not just research online,” Vilardo continues. “I go to veterans organizations and libraries. I went to the National Archives in Maryland. The first time I was in the Camden County Historical Society, I was like a kid in a candy store. I’ve also been able to contact members of some of their families.”

Vilardo also has found several books, other publications or websites containing eyewitness accounts of what happened to the Mount Ephraim servicemen.

One of them was Cpl. Delbert Kirk Sandt, who was part of the D-Day invasion force. He had recently turned 22 and was driving an M4 nicknamed “Hellzapoppin” through the hedgerows near Couvains, France, when the tank was hit by German bazooka fire on June 16, 1944.

Sandt and two other men died. But his commanding officer, who lost a leg, and another serviceman were able to get out of the burning tank.

Simone’s fate is movingly described in Love and War: Pearl Harbor Through V-J Day, a book published in 1991 by his commanding officer,  Lt. Robert Easton of Company K, 116th Infantry Regiment.

On his blog, Vilardo quotes a letter Easton wrote to his wife in which he describes seeing Simone’s body after the German artillery attack.

“He was my man. … I had led him where he was. He was following me. Perhaps the bullet intended for me hit him. If I live a hundred years, the thought of him will never leave me.”

Sayers says she would never have known details of her dad’s death were it not for Vilardo’s efforts.

“It’s a great thing to know my father was thought of like that” by his commanding officer, adds the mother of five, grandmother of 20, and great-grandmother of six, who is deeply grateful to Vilardo.

“There are not many people who would take the time to do that,” she says.

For Vilardo, research and writing about the boys from Mount Ephraim is a labor of love and a work in progress; there’s always another piece of information to chase.

The borough’s roll call of World War II dead also includes Pvt. Jerry J. Giordano; Pvt. Robert A. Dixon; Pvt. Willibold A. Stefan;  Staff Sgt. George J. Ocavage (Army Air Corps); PFC Richard Vincent Buck; Electrician’s Mate Third Class Robert August Muller (USN);  Pvt. Willis Theodore Houser; PFC Daniel Benevento; Pvt. Cornelius M. Sinon;  Pvt. Leslie A. Holtzapfel;  Radioman Third Class James Wesley Dye Jr. (USN); and Tech-5 Samuel J. Price.

“I want to get the full stories on these guys … their families, their childhoods, their service records, what led to their deaths,” Vilardo says. “And finally, where are they? Where are they interred? Are they still missing?”

When he’s been able to visit one of their graves, “it’s almost like meeting them. This person I’ve been researching -- this is where he is.”

And the project is a way of saying “thank you for your service,”  says Vilardo, who deserves our thanks, too.